Bringing workers back to the office after COVID-19 requires a decent amount of trust, but trust is like a porcelain dish: beautiful, but easily shattered. And even if you’ve been good to your employees through the pandemic, they likely have taken a trust hit in other areas across the board. To help them feel safe, take the following critical factors into consideration.
1. Reasons for Being Afraid To Return
Maybe they lost or almost lost someone they loved to the virus, or maybe political views got in the way of a friendship. Maybe they’re just not sure if they can handle a social environment after being in lockdown. Whatever is causing anxiety, actively uncover it so you can acknowledge how people feel and help them through it with genuine empathy.
2. Individual Timing
People are going to have their own preferences, challenges and strengths, and they’re all going to take a different amount of time and need different things to get through the back-to-the-office transition. Give people the freedom they need to adjust on their own schedule.
Even as you recognize everyone’s individuality, you have to have some basic clarity about what you will and will not tolerate. For example, what happens if someone starts talking about how they had a big maskless get-together and others get upset? Do you want people to go to HR if they see something they disagree with or would you rather avoid that so people don’t feel like everyone’s policing each other? Having a good policy and applying it consistently can head off conflicts and give people direction.
A dirty office isn’t an inviting work environment. It also can remind people of how disruptive and hurtful the pandemic has been. Many workers are more mindful than ever of hygiene because of the virus. So, tidy up. Hire a service to come in and give things a deep clean to help everyone feel good about coming back. Make sure the office doesn’t look like a ghost town and that everything is sanitary for people to dive into what they need to do.
5. Leader Presence
Most people look to leaders to help them decide what to do. They get a lot of emotional security from seeing that others aren’t worried. Make sure that, if you have an executive team or people others gravitate to, they come back two or three days a week for a while before everyone else has to show up. Simply seeing that those leaders are present and working will communicate to the rest of the team that everything’s going to be all right and that they’ll individually be OK.
6. Alternate Arrangements
Many people had to take on other responsibilities during the pandemic, such as child care. They adjusted how they shopped, where they kept their work tools or how they were involved in the community. They need time to shift everything again. It is essential to give your employees enough warning before transitioning back into the office. Offer resources that could help them transition. Be as transparent as possible about your policies and timing so they have better clarity about any alternate arrangements that might work well.
Sure, there might be some people who still put on a formal outfit for work through the pandemic even if they didn’t have to hop on Zoom, but most people kicked their shoes off for the whole year. If your culture was more laid back about the dress code to start with, this isn’t a huge deal. But if your business environment was more strait-laced, then be cognizant of the fact that people might want to be more relaxed than they used to be. Some people also might be more self-conscious or even need to redo their wardrobe. So be kind, and if you can, be a little more forgiving with your dress code.
8. Other Interactions
If you’ve got workers with kids, they likely are used to having their children around them for much of the day now. Other people might have been checking in on parents or other loved ones. And even for single employees, animals often have become beloved friends. Be mindful of how important and familiar those other interactions have been. You don’t necessarily have to let employees bring their kids or pets to work, but finding ways to let them keep those connections, such as maybe giving them a chance to talk to their kids throughout the day, can prove you care about their entire well-being.
Businesses are more open to hybrid or alternate work setups than they used to be. Even so, for most companies, bringing people back to a traditional office after the pandemic may be a must. Unfortunately, most workers are operating with damaged trust. To rebuild it and ensure that your back-to-office transition goes smoothly, consider all the points outlined above. By taking those realities into account, you can work together with your team to find a new normal where everyone is both productive and comfortable.